As Virginia's General Assembly starts up this week, state senators and delegates face the delicate task of cutting and funding initiatives and programs in the midst of a $1.2 billion budget shortfall.
For Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (D-34th), the shortfall will make an impact on all legislation discussed during the session.
"I think it's obvious to everybody that the budget is going to override everyone's concerns," Byrne said.
To ease the shortfall, Byrne said she supports a bill by Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-32nd) that would raise the cigarette tax at the point of sale by manufacturer to distributer. The 3-cent raise per package targets manufacturers in Virginia with potential generated revenue estimated at $400 million.
During the 2002 session, lawmakers cut services and laid off 6,000 employees to make up for the $3.4 billion shortfall, according to Byrne.
"We do have an obligation to provide for the health, safety and welfare of our citizens," Byrne said.
While lawmakers determine how to alleviate this year's shortfall, Byrne will press for several issues of her own. At two recent public hearings, citizens addressed Byrne on education and mental health and disability funding. Byrne also intends to introduce several pieces of legislation.
"I've got a dozen or so bills that run the gamut from prohibiting spam to allowing small business owners to buy into the state health-insurance plan," Byrne said.
She added that nursing home care is also on her list of priorities.
"My top priority is to make nursing homes safe," Byrne said. To do that, nursing homes need to "increase staffing, and allow people to have granny cams and [allow] other measures to make nursing homes more accountable to the families and to the residents."
On education, Byrne said, "Any attempt by the legislature or the governor to touch education funds should be watched closely."
As for a prediction on how these issues will pass, Byrne said it's difficult to foretell.
"What we're going through now is unprecedented," Byrne said, referring to four years of budget cuts.
To contact Byrne, citizens can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. During the session, citizens can also call the constituent hot line at 800-889-0229, or write to Sen. Leslie Byrne, P.O. Box 2612, Falls Church, VA 22042-0612.